Commentary Magazine

Agnon's Last Word

The novelist of today . . . cannot quite believe in . . . his finite world. That is, the existence of Highbury or the Province of O—is rendered improbable, unveracious, by Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the population curve of China, and the hydrogen bomb.

—Mary McCarthy, The Humanist
in the Bathtub

Anyone for whom novels have mattered must surely at times be troubled by the sort of doubt Mary McCarthy raised some years ago in one of her most intelligent, and disquieting, essays, “The Fact in Fiction.” In a century of scarcely imaginable historical outrages, what, after all, is one to do with a literary form so sturdily commonsensical, concerned as it traditionally has been with the realistic rendering of ordinary experience, the potential of revelation in trivia, the gossipy side of human intercourse, the petty frustrations, sordidness, or sheer banality of local scenes and personal relations? Mary McCarthy states this dilemma of the contemporary novelist with painful sharpness: “If he writes about his province, he feels its inverisimilitude; if he tries, on the other hand, to write about people who make lampshades of human skin, like the infamous Use Koch, he feels still more the inverisimilitude of what he is asserting.”

The work of S.Y. Agnon provides an especially instructive instance of the difficulties of the novelistic imagination in engaging modern historical reality because there is such a peculiar and baffling duality in Agnon’s relation to the 20th century. Stylistically, of course, he made a point of seceding from his own age, insisting on a meticulously classical Hebrew, even, for example, in the speech of a kibbutznik or the dialogue of a very contemporary lover and his mistress—a language that goes back many centuries to the formative texts of rabbinic tradition. Both early and late in his career, he sometimes chose to write about what was, literally, his province (Galicia) before its familiar forms of Jewish life were obliterated by the onslaught of modern history. Turn-of-the-century Buczacz remained a favorite setting for his shorter fiction, in his declining years occasionally inviting something like pious reminiscence, and his first big novel, The Bridal Canopy, takes us all the way back to a Galicia of the 18th century. Yet Agnon could not, I think, have written at all without in some way using his work to sound the abysses of modern history, for modern history constituted a ruthlessly uncompromising challenge to the validity of the language, values, and traditions from which he shaped his fiction.

As an ironist and a brilliant fabulist, he preferred to approach the menace of recent history obliquely, often displacing the raw terror of contemporary experience into various kinds of symbolic images and parabolic intimations that could be held at an intellectual distance. Thus, the book that seems to me his most original and powerful novel, T’mol Shilshom (Just Yesterday, a work that has not yet been translated into English), though conceived and written as the crematoria roared, took for its setting the distant and comparatively placid historical period of Palestine in the first decade of the century. The utter bleakness, however, of this novel’s vision of man and God may be, after all, a direct response to the nightmare of the Hitler years, as Arnold Band has plausibly argued. The grotesque “dog’s death” of the protagonist, described in hideous detail, is by no means a symbol of the fate of European Jewry, but it does suggest itself as an analogy, generating in the reader a sense of outrage and helpless dismay that would be appropriate responses to a senseless catastrophe that is historical, not merely individual. Agnon can produce this double effect all the more readily because one of the central impulses of Just Yesterday is to give the lie to theodicies, and God as an object of radical critique remains conveniently timeless. When a pious woman cries out in anguish at the end of the book, “After all, we know the Holy One’s mercies are many, but why doesn’t he have mercy on us?,” her words, pronounced in a fictional time, circa 1910, resonate over an actual 1945 landscape gray with human ash and clotted with mass graves.

A novel so grim and uncompromising as Just Yesterday could hardly be called an evasion, but it deals with contemporary history only by indirection, while in the foreground it focuses on less apocalyptic, more manageable, processes of historical decline: the decadence and petrifaction of Orthodox Judaism, the erosion of traditional Jewish values in the new secularist milieu, the crippling disorientation of an individual cut loose from the moorings of the old world and unable to find himself in the new one. It remained for Agnon to attempt a direct, full-scale novelistic rendering of the contemporary Jerusalem he knew as it was gripped by the historical violence immediately surrounding it and shaken by the shock-waves of the much vaster movement of violence that swept over Europe from 1933 to 1945. This was the major task that occupied him—sometimes, one is tempted to say, as a kind of labor of Sisyphus—for the last twenty years of his life. In 1949, four years after the appearance of Just Yesterday, Agnon published in the Ha-aretz Yearbook the first chapters of a new novel, Shira. From 1949 to 1955 some two hundred pages of the novel appeared in the same annual publication. After that the publishing of portions of the work in progress stopped, until two more chapters appeared in 1966. Throughout this period, as one might imagine, there was a continual hum of rumor in the Israeli literary world about the scope of the novel, its ultimate direction, about whether, as Agnon occasionally hinted to visitors, an immense magnum opus lay finished in one of his drawers, awaiting the whim of the master to be revealed to the world. According to the testimony of Agnon’s daughter, he set aside the manuscript after the mid-50’s and then began again to work on it seriously in the last years of his life. During his final illness, he gave instructions for the manuscript to be published, indicating certain chapters in manuscript that were to be omitted, others to be included. Now, a year after Agnon’s death, Shira, his longest novel and his most contemporary in setting and personages, has finally been published in Israel. The novel is still without an ending, and at a number of points obviously still in need of the author’s editing (particularly in the overabundance of anecdotal digressions), yet with its flaws it is a compelling—at times, haunting—book that confronts directly problems Agnon was content merely to allude to elsewhere in his writing.



The materials of Shira more closely resemble those of the traditional European novel than do the materials of any other long work of fiction by Agnon. The social milieu in which the action is set is the best approximation of a bourgeoisie offered by Jerusalem on the eve of World War II—the highly Germanic academic community of the Hebrew University, with its acute consciousness of rank and status, its rituals of social propriety, its squabbles and intrigues, its constant institutional fuss and bother, all seen here in a caustic, satiric light. The action itself pivots upon the most traditional of novelistic subjects, adultery, though, as I shall try to show, Agnon does some rather peculiar things with this subject. The protagonist, Manfred Herbst, a lecturer in Byzantine history, is a scholar capable of the most selfless dedication to his work, but while he endlessly accumulates notes and references and index cards for that big second book, a study of the burial of the poor in Byzantium, the book itself never materializes and his professorship remains a distant mirage. Herbst is decidedly an autumnal figure, as his German last name suggests, soul-weary from years on the academic and domestic treadmills: one is a little startled to learn near the end of the novel that he is only forty-three, which would make him perhaps barely forty when the action starts. “Action” is something of an exaggeration, since we first see Herbst and his wife Henrietta lapsing into somnolence in the reception room of a maternity ward. Herbst watches his pregnant wife doze between contractions, studying her faded, distorted features, and then he himself nods. He is awakened by the entrance of a nurse named Shira, “tall, masculine, wearing glasses that jutted out impudently in front of her eyes, making the freckles on her gray cheeks rise like nailheads in an old wall.” Hardly an alluring bedmate, one would think, but within a few hours, while Henrietta, presumably, is giving birth, Herbst will find himself alone with Shira in her room where she, changed now into a light blouse and tight blue slacks, uncannily becomes a potent sexual presence and quickly moves the shy academician from caressing touch to naked embrace. The surge of guilt Herbst feels after the encounter is predictable, and so his subsequent visits to Shira are intermittent, ambivalent, driven. She on her part allows him to go to bed with her only two or three times more, choosing for inscrutable reasons to tantalize rather than satisfy him. Eventually, she disappears without a trace, leaving him his obsession with her, his violently erotic dreams, a recollected line of Hebrew verse that insistently repeats itself in his head: “Flesh like your flesh will not soon be forgotten.”

This exploration of the poignancy of banal experience is very much in keeping with the traditions of the realistic novel, and the plot itself—the futile attempt to escape the aridity of bourgeois life by pursuing a will-o’-the-wisp of passion—is virtually the archetypal plot of the classical European novel. What makes Shira crucially different is the fact that this familiar domestic drama is enacted against the obtrusive background of a world in flames. All around Herbst and his books, wife, and mistress, Arabs are killing Jews. (These were the grim days, in the years between 1936 and 1939, of murderous assaults by Arab bands on the Jewish settlement, during which the Haganah followed the policy of havlagah, or non-reprisal.) A Jewish boy murdered by Arabs is mentioned on the first page of the novel, later Herbst himself is barely missed by a sniper’s bullet, and painful reminders of the unending killings are repeatedly thrust upon him in a variety of ways. At a greater geographical distance, Hitler is preparing his death-camps. Jerusalem is flooded with refugees, many of them broken inside by the violent wrench from their old way of life. Henrietta Herbst has aged prematurely from the frantic, unavailing effort of running from office to office to obtain immigration certificates for her otherwise doomed relatives in Germany. Ironically, Herbst, the man of sedentary learning and vagrant passion, heads a household of activists—his wife trying to intercede with the authorities, one grown daughter joining a kibbutz, the other becoming a terrorist, while he, like most of the world under the shadow of apocalypse, continues to read, write, think, brood, and lust.

I have called the plot of Shira a “domestic drama,” but in fact Agnon takes pains to emphasize the utter aimlessness of the events narrated, thus carefully destroying any dramatic urgency they might generate. The story breaks down into a series of deliberately repetitious, rudderless circlings: Herbst at his desk, hovering over his mounting stacks of notes; Herbst drifting through the streets of Jerusalem, going round and round Shira’s apartment, now always locked and empty; Herbst going over and over in his mind the memory of the soft flesh that will not soon be forgotten. This quality of drift is, of course, partly a function of Herbst’s indecisive character, but the narrator himself ultimately connects it with the general impact of public experience upon private life in an age of historical enormities: “Ever since the wars began coming one after the other, with killing upon killing upon murder, shrinking the value of man, the power of the moral qualities has been drained, the sting of hatred blunted, the honeyed taste of love gone, and everything follows the impulse of the moment.” The comprehensiveness of this catalogue is noteworthy. All the moral qualities (midot), good and bad, have lost their urgency; hatred as well as love is insipid. The point is not, as in the cliché, that man has become a monster but rather that his moral life does not seem to matter to him any more in an era of global massacres. An Emma Bovary or an Anna Karenina could believe passionately and take fierce delight in her illusions; Manfred Herbst lives in a world where grand dreams are absurd, and the would-be heroic individual is no longer capable of morally challenging the accepted order of things by casting up against it an intense vision of private fulfillment. In stark contrast to the hero of the traditional novel, Herbst has no illusions at all about his mistress. He stumbles into her path quite accidentally, is attracted to her entirely by “the impulse of the moment” (yetzer ha-sha’ah), and afterward experiences not love but a sour and distracting erotic obsession. Even in his guilt, moreover, he wonders whether the whole affair really amounts to anything, whether moral consequentiality is not entirely a matter of convention. The “honeyed taste of love” appears once in the novel, retrospectively, when Henrietta recalls an idyllic swim in the nude with Herbst during their courtship in Berlin almost a quarter of a century earlier; but such Edenic love clearly has no place in the “war years” which are the setting for the main action of the novel.

Yet, peculiarly, there abides in Manfred Herbst’s private experience, however circumscribed and frustrated, a stubbornly human value, something that at moments seems almost precious. Politics for Herbst (and, one assumes, for Agnon) is a realm of futility, unmanageable, unimaginable, inhuman. “Through politics,” he bitterly announces to a young girl whose father has been murdered by Arabs, “one dies and through politics one is killed, through politics one gets sick and through politics speeches are made and shots fired.” Though he has occasional misgivings about his own stance, politics is simply not a sphere with which he can deal; however insistently it impinges on him, he remains a thoroughly private person. Man as a private creature rather than a strictly political animal is impelled by three age-old drives: to seek knowledge, to make beauty, and to gratify his senses. All three of these impulses are strong in Herbst, and it is through an insight into the dynamics of their interrelation that Agnon manages to articulate in Shira an immensely suggestive statement about the place of fiction, and of art, in an age of endemic disaster.



At first glance, the pursuit of knowledge—and for the most part, it is the knowledge of distant antiquity—in this novel may seem merely grotesque. On occasion, the harshly sardonic satire is quite explicit: “Wechsler sits as is his wont doing his own work, classifying talismans and seals and family insignia and putting them into bags and leaving Hitler to kill and the Jews to save themselves.” Now, in interpreting the harshness here, it is important to note that Agnon distinguishes crucially between the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the exploitation of supposed knowledge for selfish ends. The academic profession here, like most professions everywhere, is filled with singleminded careerists, opportunists, and charlatans, playing all the old academic games with doctored footnotes, unacknowledged borrowings from colleagues and students, selective use of documents, and slick restatements of worn ideas. The cutting edge of Agnon’s satire is directed not against the academic enterprise as such but against those manifestations of it which are really a kind of confidence game and not a pursuit of knowledge at all. Wechsler, for example—his name means “changer” or “broker”—has made a brilliant career out of the discovery and purported deciphering of a scrap of ancient leather on which appear three fragmentary letters so obscure that no one is sure whether they should be read from right to left or from left to right.

By contrast, the book repeatedly alludes to Professor Neu, Herbst’s teacher in Germany, as the model of a superbly perceptive mind unswervingly devoted to the discovery of truth, and it is clearly felt in the novel that such devotion is one of the preeminently human activities, becoming in its pure state a moral achievement on its own account. Just before the point where the narrative breaks off, Herbst meets a medical researcher who had infected himself with a highly dangerous disease in order to discover a cure for it. Deeply troubled, Herbst wonders whether he and his fellow humanists would be capable of such sacrifice for the knowledge they seek, and he concludes that there are rare men like Neu who would not fail even that test. For those who can carry on the academic enterprise in such a spirit, their persistence in it even at a moment of historical cataclysm is not selfish privatism, like Wechsler’s, but the affirmation of a basic value of civilization.

Agnon is concerned, however, to suggest the ultimate limits of historical knowledge, which is quite a different matter from satirizing the self-seeking practitioners of a bogus historiography. One reason for Herbst’s failure to finish his book is his acutely honest sense of the tentativeness of all our knowledge of the past. A magisterial intelligence like Neu’s can, after painstaking research, illuminate whole regions of the past that were previously cloaked in darkness—might Agnon have had Gershom Scholem in mind?—but nagging doubts persist about the ubiquitous necessity to work from partly suppositious evidence, incomplete documents, chains of inference, and possibly faulty hypotheses. Historical investigation, moreover, even when it is disinterested, is seen to involve a special sort of self-absorption without genuine self-knowledge. It seems to promise but never really delivers the kind of truth one needs to live with at a moment of universal mayhem. This point is clearly suggested by the very remoteness of the materials studied by these Jerusalem scholars (patristics, Byzantine history, proto-Sinaitic literary remains); and Herbst’s own preoccupation with ancient practices of interment obviously suggests that the past available to historical research is, literally and figuratively, dead and buried.

Against this large sense of the limits of scholarship as a source of existential truth, imaginative literature is presented in the novel almost polemically as the alternative to the scholarly way. There is more direct discussion of the value and nature of literature here than anywhere else in Agnon’s work. Shira completely drops the characteristic Agnon affectation of independence from the corpus of European literature: Goethe, Rilke, Stefan George, Strindberg, Balzac, Tolstoy are on the lips and minds of both the characters and the narrator; Herbst himself has been a careful student of the literary classics and is an avid reader of contemporary fiction and poetry. More than once the novel comments ironically on the multitudes that read literature for all the wrong reasons—for moral edification, for the imbibing of a grand “message,” for the understanding of social problems, for the revelation of erotic mysteries, the excitement of the plot, the richness of the language, or simply to while away the time. For Herbst, on the other hand, “the essence of any book was in the power of its poetry, in the living spirit it embodied, in its imaginative power, in its truth.” It is hardly accidental that this series should begin with poetry (shira) and end with truth (emet), and some clue to the concrete meaning of those large, ringing terms may be grasped if one recalls that they are the equivalent of the German Dichtung und Wahrheit. That, of course, is the title of the work of Goethe’s old age, not a theoretical statement but an autobiography, an elaborate literary experiment in self-knowledge, a study of the making of a poet which is, incidentally, divided into four parts, like Agnon’s novel. The story of Manfred Herbst also turns out, somewhat surprisingly, to be about the making of a poet. Nearly halfway through the book, the diligent historian, pondering the intrigues of the Byzantine court, is seized with the sudden realization that what he must make of them is not another article for the learned journals but a tragedy. Comically, he grabs a notebook and begins to jot down a thumbnail bibliography on tragedy: Aristotle’s Poetics, Sophocles’s Antigone, Wilhelm Meister, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Schlegel, Jean Paul. One can already guess that Herbst will never actually write the tragedy, though the reasons for his failure lie less in his academic work habits than in the reticence of his moral imagination.



It is only after his involvement with Shira that Herbst conceives the idea of becoming an imaginative writer, and the reader of the novel can scarcely forget that her name means “poetry.” Yet, paradoxically, Shira is the most thoroughly unpoetic of “muses,” not only in her aggressive manner and her often sloppy appearance but in the open contempt she shows for literature, literati, and all lofty aestheticism. If it were not for the distracting thoughts about Shira, the narrator observes, Herbst would be able to write his tragedy (which is, of course, another kind of shira, of poetry). Nevertheless, it is appropriate that this harsh and elusive mistress should bear the name of poetry, for the inflaming, exacerbating relationship she offers Herbst is the gateway to the difficult world of artistic creation, a world of imperious, passionate experience, of naked confrontation with self and other, outside the rules and restrictions and protective structures of bourgeois society. Shira is more openly concerned with sexuality than any of Agnon’s other novels because it is a study of the intimate and intricate connection between sexuality and artistic creativity, between both those terms and self-knowledge.

In this connection, it is important to note that the sexuality operating in the relationship between Herbst and Shira and ramified in a variety of dreams and narrative insets throughout the novel is, by conventional standards, perverse. Shira’s masculinity, as we have seen, is observed the moment she enters the novel, and Herbst quickly realizes that she appeals to him precisely because she vividly embodies the radical ambiguity of male and female roles and identity. When she slips out of her nurse’s uniform into “man’s clothing” (the blue slacks), he discovers that her womanliness is suddenly enhanced. Later, in dream and waking experience, he will encounter other women whom he confuses with men. At the feminine end of the spectrum, Lisbeth Neu, a niece of the great professor and the delicately idealized alternative to Shira in Herbst’s fantasies, arouses his desire because of the shadow of downy hair on her upper lip. “Women with a faint sign of masculinity,” Herbst observes of Lisbeth, “can drive us wild. Look at Shira, she seems half-man, but when you know her better you realize that no one is more womanly.” In the great climactic dream that concludes Book One of the novel, the opposites of masculine and feminine, scholarship and poetry, Herbst and Shira, Shira and Lisbeth Neu, all merge phantasmagorically. Shira, in her blue slacks of the first night, appears before the scholar in a form so threatening that his teeth start to chatter and he cries out, “If you insist on living my life, you will have to turn into a man.” The still-dreaming Herbst then encounters a friend from his student days, a classics major who “used to correct Wilamowitz’s translations of the Greek tragedies.” The two begin to talk about “the limiting of genders in language, and especially about those words which are masculine in one language and feminine in another. Herbst wanted to mention the word poeta as Neu interpreted it.” In the final sequence of the dream, Herbst stumbles through a series of grotesque frustrations and in the end buys a silver knife as a wedding-present for the marriage of Shira to Lisbeth Neu.

All this, of course, reflects the neuroses of Manfred Herbst, but even more interesting is what it suggests about the relationship between erotic experience and art. The realm into which Shira introduces her lover is a realm where all fixed roles are denied. Herbst’s bourgeois-academic milieu, by contrast, is a sphere where personal and professional roles, not to speak of rank, are utterly determined and scarcely to be questioned. The academic mind itself tends to work with a neat classroom logic that excludes the paradoxical identity of antinomies. Thus, in formal grammar masculine and feminine are mutually exclusive, though language itself, mirroring more complex human realities, presents anomalous exceptions to the rules, and a scholar of the stature of Neu is able to perceive that the Greco-Roman word for poet crucially crosses the ordinary demarcations of gender and morphology. The realm of poetry—in Agnon’s Hebrew either piyut (masculine) or shira (feminine) —is a realm of the polymorphous perverse imagination, which can assume either sex, any identity, the most exalting and the most degrading of relations and activities. It is a far more dangerous, disturbing sphere of existence than the four-square world of the solid burgher, but precisely for that reason it can embrace more of the truth, though it also makes exacting demands of the individual who would attain that truth. In the world of shira-piyut, sex is a plunge into the unknown. In bourgeois academe, it is a utilitarian act of biological procreation: Henrietta conceives on each of the two occasions in the novel when Herbst is said to have had intercourse with her; he habitually addresses her as “Mother”; and when, at the midpoint of the novel, he presses against her in bed, desperately calling “Mother, Mother,” we see that this kind of sex is an escape from experience and a return to the womb.

One highly significant detail in Herbst’s dream that I have not yet commented on is his choice of a silver knife as a wedding gift for Shira and Lisbeth Neu. In the suppressed inner life of this quiet academician, there is a progressively insistent association between sex and violence. Not long after her first meeting with Herbst, Shira has a sado-masochistic encounter with a certain genteel engineer equipped with an exquisitely cunning whip. As Shira begins to report this experience to Herbst in languorous detail, she coyly challenges him: “‘And you, my dear little boy, tell me, aren’t you capable of hitting a woman?’ Herbst, shocked, answered no, while he felt himself close to raising his hand and slapping her across the face.” Later, Herbst will begin to have recurrent nightmares of rape and dismemberment. In the most significant version, Shira goes for a walk on the beach with the engineer—now a dream-surrogate for Herbst-who, deprived of his whip, is forced to flee and watch from a hiding place while Shira is stabbed and raped by Arabs, and the unforgettable “flesh like your flesh” of the line of verse, recalled in the dream, is reduced to butchered meat.



The “political” implication of this descent into the nether self is virtually the same one that emerges from the sexual portrait of a pacifist girl in I Am Curious (Yellow), though the novel is entirely free of the Swedish film’s heavyhanded didacticism. Herbst, by background and temperament inclined to pacifism, has been peripherally involved in Brit Shalom, the pacifist bi-nationalist movement led by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and other Hebrew University figures, but he remembers another time, when he had to “wade up to the knees in blood” as a German soldier in World War I. In fact, pacifism for Jews at a time of bloody assaults against Jews is clearly seen as a suicidal retreat from history for the sake of a self-congratulatory posture of higher morality. Yet in the novel, in any case, Agnon is not interested in making a programmatic political statement but in penetrating human nature at a time of bewilderingly murderous politics. Herbst, the well-meaning, peace-loving homme moyen sensuel, proves in the depths of sexual violence pent up inside him to be profoundly implicated in the world of “killing upon killing upon murder” from which his conscious mind recoils. Thus, the psychic energies that issue in global slaughter are sounded in the novel as they pulse through a private life, the insight of art becoming a first condition for the realistic imagination of politics.

The hiatus in Herbst between unconscious and conscious self is the most essential reason for his failure to write the tragedy of which he dreams. If, as I have suggested, poetry is seen as the realm of the polymorphous perverse imagination, it also requires, paradoxically, imaginative discipline and an unblinking courage of vision, and these are beyond Herbst. Early in the novel, the scholar proudly shows to a friend a copy of the first edition of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy which he has discovered in a used-book shop in Jerusalem. The frustration of Herbst’s ambition to become a tragedian can be explained directly in terms of Nietzsche; indeed, much of Shira might usefully be viewed as fictional variations on themes from The Birth of Tragedy.2 For Nietzsche, one recalls, the roots of tragedy are in the connection it maintains with that chaos of human nature and of existence which is usually masked by the institutions and psychology of life in culture. Herbst, in Nietzsche’s terms, is neither an Apollonian nor a Dionysian but a Socratic type, “Socratic” culture being the falsely optimistic culture dedicated to science rather than to wisdom, to the rationalized accumulation of knowledge. The Socratic impulse, in Nietzsche’s view, dominates modern Europe, making it the anti-tragic culture par excellence. The ultimate implication of Shira’s satire on the academic world is Nietzschean, for in the tragic vision of life, the bearded satyr is the true archetype of man and, as Nietzsche writes, “Confronted with him, the man of culture shriveled into a mendacious caricature.” The real Shira of the flesh and, still more, the protean and menacing Shira of Herbst’s imagination introduce the scholar to the realm of Dionysian experience. The various avatars of Shira seem “to whisper to us,” as Nietzsche says of the tragic myth of the Sphinx, “that wisdom, and particularly Dionysian wisdom, is an unnatural abomination; that he who by means of his knowledge plunges nature into the abyss of destruction must also suffer the dissolution of nature in his own person.” Herbst, as a would-be tragedian, must be able to contain this dissolution in Apollonian form. (His daughter sends him a postcard from Greece with a picture of Apollo and an inscription on the statue’s arm, “greetings from Apollo”; comic mention is made more than once of Tchernichovsky’s Nietzschean poem, “Before the Statue of Apollo,” in which Apollo turns out to be Dionysus as well.) But Herbst cannot contain what he cannot confront.



Near the end of the novel, the historian comes to the conclusion that, “Modern poets may be experts on the ingredients of tragedy, some of them perhaps more than the early poets were, but because the ancients were believers, the creation of tragedy was granted to them.” The idea is, of course, a familiar one, but it is worth trying to see the specific meanings given to this lost state of belief within the context of the novel. In the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, an inexorable principle of diké, or divine justice, works through the resistant medium of humanity, making possible some ultimate reconciliation at the end of the tragic agony—in terms of the literary form, making the tragic plot possible. For the moderns, who have seen “the power of the moral qualities . . . drained” by one wave of killings after another, divine justice is the most difficult of all beliefs, and so writers cannot imagine true tragedy but only, as Herbst puts it, “the narration of tragic events.” More specifically, a modern intellectual like Herbst is no longer capable of absorbing the shattering impact of Dionysian return to primordial unity which, according to Nietzsche, was the basis for the tragic experience in a cult attuned to primal unities.

Since the fragmentary details of Herbst’s plan for his tragic play indicate it is a projection of his obsession with Shira, one can infer that he is unable to write the play because he is finally too committed to the surface-world of his Socratic self to enter into the Dionysian depths intimated by his experience with her. In the projected tragedy, the emperor of Byzantium has designs on a young noblewoman which he plans to carry out when the pregnant empress goes into labor, thus leaving him free of her scrutiny. The parallel to Herbst’s own story is clear, but the playwright has an even more important surrogate in the play, a slave named Basileios, who is the only character of the tragedy invented and not taken from history. This slave is in love with the same noblewoman the emperor desires—his predicament suggests Shira’s unattainability for Herbst, the abject submission she demands of the scholar—but he contracts leprosy and is placed in quarantine outside the walls of the city. Significantly, the narrator of the novel notes that it was a tactical error for the playwright to make Basileios a leper, since Herbst was a man of delicate sensibility and could not bring himself to imagine concretely the physical appearance of leprosy, “how lepers treated one another and what their sexual practices were like.”

The difference between the occurrence of disease here and in classical tragedy is basic to the “death of tragedy” theme in the novel. Oedipus the King begins with a plague hanging over Thebes sent by the gods for the sins committed unknowingly by the king. When the full price of tragic suffering has been exacted, the plague will be lifted, the city purged. In Herbst’s anti-tragic world, on the other hand, disease is not an instrument of divine justice but a correlative of the consciousness of guilt: it does not chastise or purge but lingers, loathesome. Herbst associates Shira (who is, of course, a nurse) with disease from the beginning of the novel. He has a recurrent hallucination of Shira enveloped in the polluted flesh of a blind beggar from Istanbul. (Istanbul, one should note, stands on the site of ancient Byzantium.) At one point, he convinces himself that he has contracted a venereal disease from her and lives for days in fear of infecting his wife and children. Nothing can be resolved through such disease because it is the image of an unhealthy soul incapable of facing its own experience squarely.3 Herbst, therefore, can be neither a participant in nor a creator of tragic experience. What the art of the novel—an essentially post-tragic art, Agnon seems to imply—can do is to use such images to illuminate the condition of particular figures like Herbst, communicating a unique sense of coherence through the very act of artistic illumination.



The novel offers one striking paradigm for the mode of communication of art, the meaning of its “poetry and truth,” at a historical moment when disease has touched the inner nature of human reality. Herbst, rummaging through an upstairs room in a bookstore, comes across the reproduction of a large panoramic painting by an artist “of the school of Breughel.” The subject is horrifying, and utterly mesmerizing: a leper, his eyes and hand eaten away by the disease, is ringing a bell to warn people off. Herbst is seized with the uncanny conviction that the infection emanates entirely from the bell, clear and bright at the center of the picture.

Who painted this picture? What was the name of the master artist who was able to infuse the spirit of life into an inanimate object? The men and women of the city could barely be seen, while the image of the diseased man, his hand and bell, were visible in great clarity. Despite this, you could see that everything in the town, the men and the women and the houses and the marketplace and the well were almost entirely tranquil, without the slightest apprehension, but the sound of the bell had already started out from the bell, clanging and reverberating and moving outward from the diseased man’s hand, and a great dread was drawing near. Herbst looked at the picture again, looked at the leper and his hand but not at the bell, for now he realized that the sickness could not be in the bell. All the while he avoided touching the picture as if its form had been smirched like that of a living leper. . . . At that moment it was clear to Herbst that he heard a sound emanating from the bell in the diseased man’s hand proclaiming a warning, “Get away, don’t touch me.” Herbst observed the warning voice and did not touch the picture but he looked and looked again with terror-stricken eyes and an eager soul.

The Breughelian painting—like a few of the greatest modern novels—combines an intense quality of apocalyptic vision with painstaking, almost clinical realism in the rendering of individual detail against a large social background. At the center of vision is the uncanny bell, a visible token of the true artist’s ability to focus the reality he represents, to give it formal coherence and thus significance. What the bell communicates as its presence radiates out to the limits of the scene and beyond cannot be conveyed discursively, for it is the kind of immediate insight into the nature of things available only to the artist and realizable only in his chosen medium. The corresponding immediacy of communication through the achieved work of art is of course clear in the hallucinatory way the painting becomes a living, speaking presence to its observer. The complacent burghers in the background of the painting register no response to this resonating center of disease and impending dread at the heart of their world because their deafness is itself an essential and highly realistic part of the artist’s subject. The same opposition between complacent trust in a false order and probing insight into radical disorder is the central opposition of this novel, as it is of so many serious works of fiction in our century. Agnon is not, I think, suggesting a necessary association between artistic creativity and neurosis (here he differs from Mann) but rather between art and the perception of human reality—which, as a rule, involves neurosis, and in our age, often worse.4 Instructively, Herbst’s eyes are “terror-stricken” but his soul is “eager” to take in the painting, because the soul is avid for reality and the great artist gives us as much of it as we can bear. In a moment, Herbst will quiet his agitation by examining some Rembrandt reproductions with their “inner sadness that brings with it inner rest—the rest which is called harmony but which I call growing wise and knowing.”

Clearly, the painting from the school of Breughel with its silent pulsations of disaster is the more characteristically modern, but, however different in feeling, its function as a work of art is not finally different in kind from that of the Rembrandts—to make possible through the rigorous translation of insight into formal order a true perception of man’s estate. Shira, then, proves to be very much an artist’s personal testament, which may be why it was so difficult a book for Agnon to resolve. That may also suggest why he was hesitant about having the entire work appear in his lifetime, for it would have impaired the misleading image he liked to preserve as a writer whose fundamental points of imaginative reference were God, Torah, and Israel. In any case, Shira, even unfinished as it is, succeeds in being a plangent response to the modern writer’s quandary about the improbability of his own province in a world of Ilse Kochs. What Agnon has done is to give that improbability a visible body by a satiric novelistic study of the figures and folkways of the province, while in the foreground, his rendering of the inner life of his protagonist hints at subterranean connections between the province and the heart of historical darkness. To place the diseased hand and the dire bell of warning at the center, the townsfolk half-glimpsed in the background, is to reverse the proportions of most traditional novels, but it makes Shira one of the few major works of fiction since the last world war that manages to speak knowingly from the depths of our century’s grim history.



1 The translations throughout are my own—R.A.

2 In all this, I would be inclined to suspect an ultimate indebtedness to the imaginative use of Nietzsche in the fiction of Thomas Mann, though Mann is never alluded to by Agnon and the two writers have not generally been linked by Hebrew critics.

3 The parallels here with Mann's Death in Venice are suggestive.

4 The medical researcher at the end of the novel may hint at Agnon's ideal of the artist: the healthy man who has the courage to take disease into himself in order to discover a necessary truth.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.